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The Yes Man: Red Bull Athlete Chuck Berry on the Act of Believing

Words by | Interview by Rowena Bahl
The Yes Man: Red Bull Athlete Chuck Berry on the Act of Believing
Jumping into the world's largest sinkhole Xiaozhai Tiankeng in China with Amanda Vicharelli. Photo by Dave Major.

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New Zealand adventure legend Chuck Berry talks us through our fear of falling. As a Red Bull Athlete, it’s in Berry’s job description to dream up ideas others would dismiss as “crazy” and make them reality.

Adventure has always been in his blood; a motorcycle wreck in 1997, which broke his neck, didn’t put him off, nor have more recent close shaves with the sides of buildings. Berry is a sucker for “anything that’s exciting, that gets the pulse up… your blood racing.”

World renowned for B.A.S E. (Building. Antenna.Span.Earth.) jumping, his first attempt at this daredevil sport was in 1989, in the USA. Berry recalls that in those days there wasn’t the large, world-wide community of jumpers that exist now — just a small handful of people who knew, or knew of, one another. He next jumped off a large TV antenna tower in Milwaukee with a group of Americans, before returning home to New Zealand and taking the first leap off Skipper’s Canyon Bridge near Queenstown.

Chuck Berry sitting by a propeller plane and smiling on a fine sunny day
Chuck Berry.

Nearly two decades on, Berry made his first building jump in 2008, from the spectacular KL Tower in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Berry must have felt that he had nearly 2 decades worth of catching up to do, because he then proceeded to leap off the KL Tower 36 times over 3 days. He recalls seeing what tricks he could do as he became more familiar with the tower, eventually hanging off the side like a villain in a movie about to fall to his death. The City now opens the building once a year to allow B.A.S E jumpers to do their thing.

With a life as action-packed as Berry’s it can be tough to identify stand-out moments, but he tells us that his experience of parachuting into the world’s biggest sinkhole in China was “absolutely mind-blowingly sensational.” Berry distinguishes this from other jumps which involve parachuting from well above ground level and landing on terra firma; the jump into the 680-metre deep hole near Chongqing — aptly nicknamed Xiaozhai Tiankeng or Heavenly Pit — required a skilled landing inside a crack in a wall at the bottom of the hole.

A time-lapse sequence of a base jumper coming down a craggy mountain rangein Wanaka, New Zealand
Time-lapse photography capturing a Red Bull base jump at Wanaka, New Zealand. Photo by Graeme Murray

A huge part of the appeal associated with these death-defying feats for Berry is the “beautiful transition” from land to air and back down again. In contrast to our life of being literally stuck to the earth, B.A.S.E. jumping involves “running off the planet; all of a sudden you’re free… the floor has fallen away” — which results in a dramatic and complete re-conceptualisation of three-dimensional space.

Berry emphasises that these feats are not as crazy as they may initially appear. He argues that it all comes down to having faith in ourselves, in our abilities, and in preparation. When there is no room for mistakes, there is no choice but to avoid making them in the first place — which negates the need for a backup system. Clearly, this rules out jumping off things willy-nilly and hoping for the best. As Berry says, “If you’ve got a really good Plan A, you don’t need a Plan B.” The focus is therefore on ensuring that the initial plan is strong and well thought out. There will always be unknowns, but Berry contends that it is simply a case of controlling that which is within our power: choosing the right conditions and building enough altitude into the plan so that there is room to adjust in case of the unexpected This philosophy distances what he is doing now from his younger, more reckless days, where he recalls he would “jump off anything.”

The reason they can jump is that they believe they can… all adventure is about the belief that you can.

Chuck Berry

Working through the risk and the details needed to surmount them is part of what makes these adventures so rewarding for Berry. He is well aware that his life is on the line with every jump, and he is betting everything against his ability to handle whatever comes at him: “My life is in my hands and it’s my responsibility. I can’t afford to put that into anyone else’s hands.” It is about getting into a sharply focused mindset where he knows he simply has to give “the performance of a lifetime.” After that, it’s not scary at all, but pure fun.

Inspired by true-life adventure stories, where people survive a tragic accident and struggle against incredible odds, Berry suggests that we can reach that same level of engagement in our existence without actually having to be in such an intense life or death situation. Challenge as a choice, rather than a state of emergency, can still lead us to a deep appreciation of how lucky we are to be alive. Further, Berry argues that challenging ourselves in this way and coming out the other side helps us to realise that we are capable of so much more than we might otherwise think.

Chuck Berry spreadeagled in a wingsuit floating down to a very pink lake
Chuck Berry in a wingsuit flying over the Pink Lake of Middle Island, 150 kilometres east of Esperance in Western Australia on February 5, 2014.

It is the self-sufficiency and self-knowledge associated with these challenges that has allowed Berry to continue pushing the boundaries. He loves the process of imagining something completely out of the ordinary, combined with the challenge of making it happen in reality. The latter is crucial, as “until you actually do it you haven’t proven anything: There’s no point in sitting around theorising.

Berry gives the example of the Red Bull tent parachute (as in: promo tent), which he used for a jump from a helicopter in 2013 No one believed it would work, except for Berry — and it did. On what sets aerial adventurers apart, it is simple: “The reason they can jump is that they believe they can… all adventure is about the belief that you can.” He explains that those who consider his escapades “crazy” are those who judge based on their own skill set, which need not apply to others.

Man standing on anothers' shoulders and both jumping off a building down towards buildings below them in Kuala Lumpur
B.A.S.E. jumping off the Kuala Lumpur tower with Miles Daisher. Photo by Nick Weller.

So whose expectations will Berry confound next? He has been busy dreaming up a catapult system to fling him off the edge of a cliff, and is also keen to fly a plane through a tunnel. He is motivated by taking things out of context: a tent isn’t supposed to belong in the sky, nor a plane in a tunnel. “They don’t normally go together,” he says, “but I think they can.”

Published on August 16, 2016
Country: New Zealand ›
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